Stop me if you've heard this before: The success of the Tide rests in the hands and fragile knees and ankles of Ronald Steele. If he is even approaching 100 percent healthy, Alabama becomes a much more dangerous team.
Alonzo Gee is the top returning scorer for the Crimson Tide.
The Tide struggled at point guard last season with Mikhail Torrance and Rico Pickett, and Pickett subsequently transferred. Steele, meanwhile, redshirted, hoping to give his body enough time to rest and recover after surgery to repair tendinitis in both knees. When he last took the court for the Tide, he averaged 8.6 points and 4.0 assists, and that was a season (2006-07) in which he was hobbled by ankle trouble. As a sophomore in 2005-06 he showed what he could do, averaging 14.3 points and 4.3 assists.
Right now, his weight looks good and he looks like his old self in shooting drills. But will he be ready to go full speed, to cut and accelerate?
One wing is held down by the ultra-athletic Alonzo Gee, who is a force on both ends of the floor. He led SEC guards in rebounding (6.8); few players in the league go to the glass as hard. He also averaged 1.5 steals per game. Gee had a career-high 32 points to go along with eight rebounds against Florida. He has started 65 consecutive games for coach Mark Gottfried, and he's an absolute warrior.
The Tide will utilize a three-guard lineup, and sophomore Senario Hillman is penciled in as the other starter. He's only 6-1, but he's one of the highest risers in the game. What Alabama coaches need out of him is more consistency. He had a four-game stretch in SEC play in which he averaged 10.8 points – a stretch that was preceded by four games in which he scored a total of two points.
Junior Demetrius Jemison is the only returning starter up front with the departure of All-SEC forward Richard Hendrix (17.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg). Jemison saw a lot more playing time in the Tide's final six games and responded by averaging 10.7 points and 7.8 rebounds. If he can put up numbers closer to that this season, he'll make the coaches happy.
Help arrives for Jemison and the Tide in the form of freshman JaMychal Green, a five-star prospect. He played for the U.S. 18U team at the FIBA Americas Championship and was one of the best post players in the tournament. He averaged 11 points and 8.4 rebounds and shot 72.4 percent. Not only did he lead the team in the latter two categories, he also led the U.S. in steals. Davidson's Bob McKillop, who coached the squad, said of Green: "His combination of a high IQ and athleticism – and his willingness to be taught and coached – will make him a very special player."
Returnee Justin Knox figures to be a major contributor and the first option off the bench in the frontcourt.
The intent will be to push the ball and get out in transition more with Hendrix gone. He was the Tide's best offensive option last season. Consequently, Alabama was more of a halfcourt team. Green and Knox will both get up and down faster. In the halfcourt, the Tide runs a high-post offense.
Gottfried will mostly play man-to-man. When the Tide goes zone, it will be a 2-3 matchup look.
Maybe it's folly to have Alabama in the countdown. It seems as if we've been in this position before. If Steele 2008-09 is a reasonable facsimile of Steele 2005-06, there's plenty to like about the Tide. Gee will be a force, and so will Green. Hillman is a highlight waiting to happen. Jemison should blossom, and Knox won't be far behind. But if the point guard is limited, Alabama won't be much better than it was last season. Consider this a vote of confidence in Steele. If it works out, the Tide will push for an NCAA bid - but perhaps come up a bit short.
SHOES TO FILL
G Mykal Riley. Yes, Hendrix was a force, but Green has a chance to step in and handle that role with nearly the same efficiency. The guy the Tide really will miss is Riley, the second-leading scorer (14.9 ppg) a year ago. He hit 103 3-pointers, 56 more than anyone else on the team, and shot 43.3 percent from long range. His ability to stretch defenses created a lot of space for his teammates.
MUST STEP UP
Steele. If he's close to his old self, everything falls into place. If not, it could be another long season.
Green. Athleticism? Check. Desire? Check. The skilled big man will be a force from Day One.
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.